March 3, 2024

Film Review: Air

4 Stars
By Joseph Beyer | April 29, 2023

In the money-for-nothing world of the 1980s where Nike couldn’t give their kicks away for free, the proposition of throwing all their corporate soles into a single basket with a single basketball endorsement sounded crazy even to rebel Phil Knight, founder of Nike, a then-mocked newcomer to the b-ball empire from Oregon’s granola belt.

Make that endorsement to an untested rookie who’d never set foot on an NBA court, and the whole scheme should never have happened—and almost didn’t. The new feature film Air takes a shot at telling you how Michael Jordan and his hidden team of real-life players transformed global empires at a time when every person on the planet seemed to want the same shoe.

It sounds exciting, and for nerds who appreciate a soft, subtle, and patient story based in history, actor and director Ben Affleck and team have delivered one (albeit with some controlled results lacking a 23andMe objectivity).

One of the film’s more interesting choices is hardly acknowledging or worshiping Jordan himself, who makes appearances but is never a full presence. This further glamorizes a tone that does more to shade mythology than clear it up, such as who wrote the famous 10 Principles of Nike manifesto or who exactly coined the name “Air Jordan.”

On the casting side, the biggest slam dunk for the film is Affleck’s reunion of easy chemistry with Matt Damon. Damon’s enduring star power plays out on screen as Sonny Voccaro, who pulls you into his blister-in-the-sun frustration that no one seems to understand he’s trying to transform the company by partnering with Jordan, and that even if he’s never been right before, this is the moment to risk it all.

Damon gets to genuinely shine and lead the story, but the script is written by a young first-timer, and there are limits to how natural he and the cast can make a screenplay that at times sounds a tad too tidy. (Plus, he’s trying to maintain the tension for an ending we already know the outcome of.) Still, for older Gen Xers like me, there’s much expected comedic relief in satellite phones, track suits, and advanced VHS technology.

Air is best when director Affleck is at work silently or allows us to just watch the ensemble cast play. There’s a lot to love with the muted and quieter approach with a terrific cast, including Affleck as founder Knight; Chris Messina as the foul-mouthed sports agent David Falk; Jason Bateman as famed renegade marketer Rob Strasser; Chris Tucker as division head Howard White (who uses his colloquial approach to win over the star player’s family); and Viola Davis, who was requested by Jordan to play his mother and protector, Deloris.

If, as the real MJ famously believed and said often, “failure is the key to success,” then maybe Air can be forgiven for not being quite as dramatic as a buzzer-beater shot from behind the three to win the game. But the film has a lingering and memorable sophistication in the sports film genre and is a welcome adult choice in a movie season saturated with Space Jam wannabes.

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